My husband was in Buenos Aires last week for work.  Since that’s on a continent I’ve never been to, he departed with strict instructions to take copious notes on everything he ate.  I already knew some things about Argentinian food — the Pampa beef, the big red wines — so what I was most interested in was the everyday food.  How do they like their coffee?  Where do they buy their groceries?  What do they eat for lunch?

I struck gold with that third question.  After one catered mid-day meal — platters of tiny ham sandwiches on sweet rolls — the Americans joined their Argentine officemates at their usual lunch spot, a local panaderie.  The bakery sold sweet pastries as well as empanadas and a variety of savory pies called “tartas.”

It was these humble tartas — not the massive steaks — that I heard the most about.  Filled with zucchini (courgette, they call it), or corn and hard-boiled egg, or spinach and whipped pumpkin, each sounded more delicious than the last.  I knew I had to try making one myself.  As it’s not especially eggy or cheesy, I thought tarta might adapt well for our egg- and dairy-free household.  And adapt well it did!  I can’t speak for my version’s authenticity, but I can attest to its deliciousness.

Making this pie is a labor of love (read: a lot of work) but is well worth the effort, especially if you’re looking for a showstopping alternative to quiche for brunch.  Feel free to vary the vegetables, or omit the bacon for a vegan or vegetarian version, just keep in mind that you’ll need at least one binding element (like a puree) to hold the pie together.

Savory vegetable pie

Yield:  Makes two 9-inch pies

For pastry:

2 1/2 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour

3/4 c. butter, Earth Balance Buttery Sticks, or dairy-free margarine, cold and cut into pieces

4 tbsp. cold, non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

About 1/3 c. ice water, as needed

For spinach layer:

3 10-oz. packages frozen spinach, thawed

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 Spanish onion, finely chopped

1/4 c. currants, soaked in hot water to plump then drained

3/4 tsp. ground cumin

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper to taste

For cauliflower layer:

1 large head cauliflower (about 2 1/2 lbs.), cored and roughly chopped

3 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. butter, Earth Balance Buttery Sticks, or dairy-free margarine

2 tbsp. unbleached, all-purpose flour

1 c. low-fat milk or unsweetened rice milk

Pinch ground or grated nutmeg

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

A few teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)

For squash layer:

4 slices bacon (optional) or 2 tbsp. olive oil

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 3/4″ dice

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

1 tsp. finely chopped, fresh thyme or oregano leaves

Make pastry:

Sift flour and salt into a mixing bowl.  Cut in butter or Buttery Sticks and shortening with a pastry blender (or whatever method you like best) until mixture is sandy, allowing some pea-sized chunks to remain.

Slowly drizzle in most of the water, stirring constantly with a fork until dough starts to come together.  If you press the dough into a ball and it crumbles when you let go, add another tablespoon or two of water.  Divide dough in half and roll each half into a ball.  Don’t worry if it’s a little crumbly — it will come together when you roll it out.

Flatten dough balls into discs, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or overnight (or make them in advance and freeze for up to 3 months).

Make spinach layer:

Press spinach in small handfuls between your palms to extract as much water as possible.  Set aside.

Warm a large skillet over medium heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add onion.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft and tender, about 10 minutes.  Stir in currants, cumin, and spinach.  Set aside.

Make cauliflower layer:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Toss chopped cauliflower with oil and spread in a single layer on a large, foil-lined baking sheet.  Season with salt and pepper.  Roast, turning cauliflower once or twice, until tender and browned, about 20 minutes.  Transfer to work bowl of a food processor.

While cauliflower roasts, make white sauce.  Melt butter or Buttery Sticks in a saucepan over medium heat.  Add flour to pan and stir with a whisk until smooth.  Slowly pour in milk, whisking constantly to prevent lumps.  Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes, whisking often.  Season with nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

Pour sauce over cauliflower in work bowl.  Process, scraping bowl once or twice, until cauliflower is very finely chopped.  Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.  Stir in lemon juice to taste, if using.  Set aside.

Make squash layer:

Cook bacon in a large skillet, over medium heat, until crisp.  Remove to a paper towel-lined plate.  Pour off all but 1 tbsp. of fat from the pan, raise heat to medium-high, and add squash.  Season with salt and pepper.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until squash just starts to soften and brown, about 5 minutes.  Stir in thyme or oregano and remove from heat.  Crumble bacon and stir into squash. (If not using bacon, saute squash in 2 tbsp. olive oil.)

Make pie:

Roll one dough disc into a circle about 1/8″ thick on a lightly floured counter.  Don’t worry if the edges crumble a bit.  Transfer dough circle to an ungreased pie plate, trim edges (use scraps to patch edges as needed), and crimp.  Refrigerate the first crust while you roll the second.

Reduce oven temperature to 400 degrees.  Spread half of spinach mixture into the bottom of each pie crust.  Top spinach layers with cauliflower mixture, then squash  mixture.  Bake pies for about 50 minutes, switching racks top to bottom and vice versa, until crusts are lightly browned.  Serve warm.

Vegetable pies keep well in the fridge for 4-5 days, and reheat beautifully in a 350 degree oven or toaster oven.

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